In the central public park of Fort-de-France, capital of Martinique, stands a statue of Empress Joséphine, who grew up on a sugar plantation to the south of the island. The statue’s stone head has been hacked off, in a fit of counter-historical wish fulfillment, and red paint has been thrown over her chest. History, which collects the scattered limbs of the dead and tries to press them into some semblance of life, is itself subject to mutilation, and that mutilation – like the headless statue – becomes part of history. Aimé Césaire’s history of the life and death of Patrice Lumumba, the first elected leader of the Congo, has been newly translated for the Young Vic theatre in London, where it is staged by film director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) and lead by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). The production opened last week to a slew of positive reviews (including on this blog, here) and it’s already selling out. But has the new version resurrected or dismembered the original?
Quentin Letts’ one-star review – ‘A rather simplistic play reduced to silliness’ – in the historically racist Daily Mail newspaper, should leave us in no doubt that this play remains radical and necessary. Since it is customary for that newspaper, between its blanket coverage of misogyny and gossip, to champion ‘civilization’ (its favourite parochialisms) against the threat of ‘barbarism’ (immigration, poverty etc.), his review illuminates a similar dialectic at the heart of the play.
Written five years after the murder of Lumumba in 1961, Une Saison au Congo marks a radical identification between the Congolese politician and the Martiniquois writer. Aside from being an experimental and gifted writer of literary and political prose, a teacher of Frantz Fanon and mentor of Edouard Glissant, Césaire was an active public figure in Martinique between 1945 and 2001, mayor of Fort-de-France and deputy to the French National Assembly. As a post-colonial leader and radical thinker, Césaire was influenced by Russian Socialism, and in this respect he was similar to, and sympathetic with, Lumumba’s relations with the USSR. Césaire’s support for Soviet Russia, however, had waned after the suppression of the Hungarian uprisings in 1956, and he announced his break with the French Communist Party in his Lettre à Maurice Thorez.
This new production of A Season in the Congo presents the dialectic of custom and civilisation as a question for international politicians and a question for people in a theatre. Civilization is a dirty word when it comes out of the mouths of puppet-politicians in Mother Belgium but democracy and freedom and the other values on the menu of self-evident truths for which Lumumba dies are the values of a modern civilisation this tragedy plays out for. Lumumba, presuming to act for the country who elected him, to speak to the world, about Africa and in solidarity with those other nations struggling for self-representation, represents an internationalism which contrasts with the tribalism of some of his countrymen, and the statism of General Mobutu.
The end of the play is unsurprising to anyone familiar with the history: this production transforms the last scene into a choreographed last supper for Lumumba, not where he eats but where he is eaten. Césaire’s play leaves us radically unclear if Lumumba represents the crucified hope of a democratic politics in a Congo unified against neo-colonial interventions, or merely an early symptom of the conflict which persists in the region, but this production leaves its audience with a conclusion that is unhelpfully confusing.
Césaire’s play educated its original audience about what had been happening in Congo until only five years before; when this production ends, however, the distance between the events of the play and the current political climate in the DRC is overwhelming. Joe Wright’s production does not renew the play’s relation to history for a twenty-first century audience. It might have done this easily by including evidence not available to Césaire in 1966, which establishes that the CIA was consulted about Lumumba’s imminent death and voiced no objection to it (more on that here).
If there are troubling continuities between the events at the end of the play and the ongoing conflict in states of the DRC, these remain for us to discover them. Two years ago, there were energetic protests outside 10 Downing Street by the local Congolese population, outraged at the elections in the DRC. They handed out leaflets appealing to passers-by to petition the UK government to take a principled stance against the global corporations plundering Congo’s mineral wealth. These memories should confirm the enduring relevance of this play’s moral complexities for a London audience.
Harry Stopes’ review on this blog quoted Brecht: “Our audience must experience not only the ways to free Prometheus, but be schooled in the very desire to free him.” Perhaps Brecht was thinking of Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound, a commentary on human empowerment which Karl Marx read it in Greek every year (more on that in Owen Holland’s essay here). Césaire, like Aeschylus, does not set out ‘the ways to free Prometheus’, but offers a document of his suffering; it is in despair, then, that we learn our desire for him to have been freed. Prometheus’ death is repeatable and pre-historical, Lumumba’s death was caused by conditions which still exist, to be protested and fought against, and while that remains true this is a play which should be seen by everyone.
Quentin Letts’ review spoils the end of the play with a confession of his own tedium:
The final touch: a windbag witch doctor who keeps jibbering away in some African tongue. I hope it is not giving away too much if I say that he is shot at the end. BANG! It was the one moment in a long, boring night that I felt like cheering.
This celebration of the death of a character who has represented the traditional beliefs of those living under colonialism,is consistent with the gross cynicism of the Daily Mail. Surprisingly, the night I attended the play, the audience were also quick to cheer the end. Consulting the original French play-text reveals that this new translation has deleted a final scene in which Mobutu orders his soldiers to fire on a crowd supporting Lumuba. It is a conclusion which makes it impossible for the audience to applaud.
Once this production has ended, why is it that the audience are already on their feet, clapping so enthusiastically, whooping and crying out? It almost sounds as if they are acclaiming General Mobutu’s final speech, which concludes with maximum hypocrisy, that the most beautiful boulevards of their cities will be renamed Lumumba, whose death he has just orchestrated. Have the audience failed to understand the force of the play? Are they clapping to honour Lumumba’s death? Or are they celebrating a powerful lead performance by a celebrity actor? Other plays command silence in the audience, after a serious conclusion, but why not here?
The quickness of the audience to make this noise signals the fundamental weakness of the production, cheering and clapping as a triumph of custom: the production failed in this most important element if its audience could emerge from the theatre already cheerfully returned to the mundane, rather than wandering out of the theatre troubled by the state of the world reflected in this history, to walk home alone speechless through the hot night.